IF YOU'VE been following my columns over the years, you might have noticed that I’m a little biased in favour of the arts. Don’t let this mislead you into thinking that I’m an artist in any way.
I’m just a consumer of the arts, like many others. I’m always in awe of those whose voices can tell tales of love and glory without even needing to use words: those whose fingers on a musical instrument transform the silence into melodies that celebrate our successes and mourn our sorrows.
I am in awe of those able to transform canvases into confessions of what is deep in their soul and can take me from my couch or theatre seat to a world far away.
So with Saturday being the date on which South Africa celebrates Heritage Day, I am going to use this column to make yet another case for why the arts, as a vehicle of our heritage, deserve better support from the state and corporates, but especially from the state.
Before I do, let me dispense with the recurrent topic of maths and science being far more important at this time in our history as a country than the arts.
It is a non-topic because there is no dispute that we need more scientists and maths-based learning. We have never not needed more maths and science learning.
I doubt if we ever will.
It’s not a binary. We don’t need to choose between art or artisanship.
The reality of the matter is that not every learner will become a scientist or a business executive.
In the same way that some of our children will become Nelson Mandela or Richard Branson, some of our children will become the next William Kentridge or Pretty Yende.
The education system should give all children a fair chance of becoming the best they can be.
Apart from the National School of the Arts (NSA) in Braamfontein, Joburg, I don’t know of any other public-funded, full-time high school in South Africa that is dedicated to offering classes in academic and artistic spheres of interest.
At just over R20 000 a year, the school is way more affordable than the many private schools that also expose children to arts education.
Naturally, the NSA is limited in how many learners it can take.
I’m not sure why it is that, in a country which claims to be proud of our artists (especially after they die), we don’t have many other such schools in other parts of the country, especially if we claim that the arts best represent the leitmotif of what we are as a nation.
What good does it do a society that, every September 24, a minister of Arts and Culture or some other high-powered government person makes a speech exalting our heritage when nothing is done at ground level to make our children excel at being agents of that heritage?
I’m not in any way suggesting that “nothing” is being done; I’m saying, categorically, that far too little is being done, especially for the historically downtrodden.
No wonder we still have among us people who wonder why the state would spend “so many millions when there are homeless and hungry people”.
Of course people need shelter and food. But that cannot be and is not the entire motive for human existence.
The arts must be to society what a flower garden is to a home. They are the paint that transforms our basic dwellings into living spaces.
The arts have a functional purpose. There is not an area of life that cannot do with a little creativity.
Imagine just how many slide presentations you have had to sit through that could have been better had they been prepared with and by a person who understood the art of capturing attention and imagination, and a person undoubtedly knowledgeable in their field of expertise.
Imagine if our president, whose speeches are generally a dreary affair, had been exposed to drama as a child and learnt how to project his voice, memorise his lines and appear confident in front of a hostile crowd.
We use the language of the arts in everyday speak. We talk about “orchestrating a coup”; of first matches of a season being “curtain raisers”.
We disparagingly call attention-seekers “drama queens”.
Many of us use phrases like “foregone conclusion” and “I didn’t sleep a wink”, or describe another as “a sorry sight” without taking a moment to remember that it was an artist, William Shakespeare, who gave us this addition to what he called “the Queen’s English”.
Maybe you are one of those who say they cannot see how worse off society would be without the arts.
Apart from being a boring, dreary and soulless nation, I can't see how worse off a society can be without its artists.